A few weeks ago, our church got to celebrate launching our new youth group: Empire Youth.
We launched with a group of leaders from our Sunday night CORE service (5pm, Sundays) and a crew of very excited youth. A lot of these guys had been coming along in term two, before our official launch, to help us build some stage decorations, dividers, and shields for our PACKS. The result was an already tight-knit group of young people who had actually built this ministry from the ground up. We were nervous and excited.
As much as it's exciting to bring youth together into one place, give them a space to connect with each other and with God in a relevant way, and be in their lives, there is another aspect to this new ministry that has had a surprising result: social justice.
I've got to admit that social justice is my jam. Those who know me well know that I rarely am without a cause. And I dive in deep. The last time I grabbed hold of a cause with all my passion, we ended up starting a local, non-profit, handmade market and running it for almost three years. This time, I think I might be in real trouble because I've found a social justice cause that resonates so deeply with my heart.
And it is, of course, related to food.
I really love food. And I've also experienced periods of my life where there's been just barely enough to survive on. As a uni student living in Canberra, I used to buy a few things every week: a packet of rice, a block of cheese, a loaf of bread, packet cheese sauce, and a bottle of milk. I would cook up a huge bowl of rice, mix the cheese sauce through it, and eat it with a little bit of cheese on top for lunch and dinner almost every day. Breakfast was toast and a cup of tea. As a young married couple, my husband was working a job he loved but which paid very little, while I went back to university. We lived off exactly $270 a week after our rent was paid, and this had to cover everything: bills, food, petrol for commuting to Canberra each day. We were also paying $300 a fortnight off a loan. For some reason, we didn't receive any gas or electricity bills for eight months. The week after I started back at work, our bills showed up and we were able to pay them. We stayed afloat. But I can't imagine what would have happened if my husband had lost his job or if I hadn't had the option of going back to work.
Our church partners with a program called Revive, which operates out of the front of our church building and opens three days a week to meet with people from our community who are struggling. People who have run out of food or had their electricity disconnected, who have just been released from jail, or who are trying to leave abusive relationships. People who need someone to listen and to help. People who don't have anywhere else to go.
For a while now, our dedicated volunteers have had to turn people away or close the office because the resources and food are just running out too quickly each week. They might open on a Monday with a full cupboard and with vouchers to give out, but they often go through everything in one day. The need is just so great.
When we proposed our concept for Empire Youth a few months ago, a footnote in the plans was the idea of incorporating Revive into our ministry. Instead of asking for an entry fee to cover the costs of hot chocolates, snacks and games, we provide those things for the youth and ask them instead to bring a can of food or other non-perishable food so we can donate it.
What I had expected was to have this little tiny facet of our Youth ministry that only I really cared about. I'd expected this to be something that I would try every week to convince people was important. I thought maybe they would humour me, maybe a few kids would remember to bring donations. What I didn't expect was that with just 20 young people (youth + leaders, all under 30yrs) we would have almost 100kgs of donations in the first two weeks alone.
What I didn't expect was a group who didn't need to be taught to think about others. I didn't expect a group of people who didn't need to experience not having enough in order to want to give to those in need. I definitely didn't expect to have leaders figuring out what they could cut from their grocery shopping in order to replace that part of their budget buying rice and canned foods for others. I didn't expect to have people researching where the best sales were each week, or thinking of different types of things they can donate to make sure that there is a good variation of options, or so that someone might be able to feed their whole family.
In 2 Corinthians 9, it says that God loves a cheerful giver. I've never seen anyone give so cheerfully as this group of young people. You should hear the shouts as we announce how much each PACK donated. We want to be a practical church, who reaches the needs of those around us.
This week's theme for EMPIRE is jam: because when people run out of food, often the first thing they will go to is toast. A jar of jam and a loaf of bread can go a long way for someone who is desperately hungry. Join us. Bring some jam to church. Empty your pantry of (unopened and in-date) food. Talk to the volunteers. Find out what they need. Let's be a church that welcomes strangers and feeds the hungry.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. Matthew 25:35